Wednesday, September 19, 2007

We Bring You This Class War, Already in Progress ...

John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition is losing it these days. When he gets to talking about condo conversions and housing demolition in Seattle, his face darkens by several shades, the veins in his forehead and throat stick out, and his voice jumps a full octave. Seattle is losing low-income housing about twice as fast as it’s being built, and it really pisses him off. In the 30 years he’s been fighting for housing, things have never been worse.

Meanwhile, we’re supposed to be “ending homelessness.” It’s a bitter irony.

We’re losing, and it’s all about political will.

Today, I attended the Seventh Annual Interfaith Task Force conference on Building the Political Will to End Homelessness. I’ve been to several of these things, and while I want to be supportive of my allies, it looked like the smallest one yet.

On the way there, I stopped for breakfast at the Westin Hotel. There, roughly three times as many developers, bankers, non-profit housing providers, city officials and others paid $65 each to hear J. Ronald Terwilliger — the CEO of Trammell Crow Residential and the chairperson-elect of Habitat for Humanity — make the business case for providing workforce housing in Seattle.

There were dozens of corporate sponsors. It’s amazing how the rich will line up to fork over money to the rich when it’s in their interest to do so. I showed up dressed as I always do. My long-sleeved green thermal T-shirt stood out in the room of about 250 suits.

Terwilliger is a man who, a few years ago, was tragically edged out by Time Warner in his bid to buy the Atlanta Braves. Terwilliger is Donald Trump lite, but with better hair, and has what, in his circles, passes for a full-blown social conscience.

An affluent society such as ours, he said, needs to provide housing for those who attend to our needs. Otherwise, various problems such as traffic congestion and pollution, low workforce morale, and a tougher hiring environment for corporations undermine the region’s ability to compete.

While Trammell Crow is very active in Seattle, and Terwilliger’s heart is with affordable housing, his pocketbook has other opinions. All of their projects involve luxury condos and apartments. There is no market incentive, he said, for them to build workforce housing in this city. In Seattle, Terwilliger would define that as housing for those who make up to 150 percent of median income. That’s somewhere above $90,000 annually.

Let me repeat that. There’s no incentive in Seattle, he said, for developers to build housing for people who make less that $90,000 annually.

To do that, Terwilliger would need code relaxations, tax breaks, and zoning incentives. Do this, he said, and people like him will be able to make the sort of profit they expect building the sort of housing we need. The economy will then hum like a new Lexus.

This morning’s gathering at the Westin might well have been called, “Building the political will to help developers make maximum or near-maximum profit while servicing a corporate-friendly market niche.”

Maybe someone else can come up with more elegant title.

Making as much money as you possibly can isn’t just a job. It’s a way of life. And, make no mistake, the wealthy in this country have successfully pursued “structural change.” They can never get enough of it.

Down I-5 a ways, at Grace Lutheran Church in Des Moines, today’s other gathering to build political will was a much more relaxed affair. They had no corporate sponsorship. They were, however, much more comfortably dressed.

The activists and church members gathered in Des Moines do what they do with minimal resources. They’re good people who are working to make a difference. But most of their efforts are directed toward charity and good works. That whole structural change thing is a bit of an afterthought, and there’s no real funding for it anyway.

This, in a nutshell, is the problem. It’s why John Fox looks like he’s about to have an aneurysm, and it’s why we’re losing.

Downtown social worker Joe Martin challenged the attendees to “inconvenience themselves in the cause of justice.” He called us to embrace a sense of the sacred that rejects an increasingly dehumanized future and engages in a fight for justice as though something real were at stake. It was an amazing, moving, radical speech, and I hope we get to reprint it sometime.

The audience clapped politely, and then ran toward the barricades. No, they didn’t. They ate lunch. And life went on as before.


Revel said...

"Let's comment together?" "Yes, Let's!"

I'll get back to you with an "elegant" name for those SHORT-SIGHTED mother fuckers (oops, I did it again).

Structural change is the only solution. The Nation's economic agenda is set by corporations which build houses, and corporations are legally bound to the shortest-sighted maximizations of earnings for shareholders. It is impossible for those who build houses to build anything that doesn't produce the highest possible profit. Nothing short of major political and economic restructuring can change it.

R: Popularity is the only thing as powerful as big money when it comes to politics, and "being there", including these meetings, is light-years ahead of being missed.

M: I'm showing-up to look for the barricades.

Arianna Huffington has recently called for revolution. I'm increasingly feeling that's the only thing will provide structural change.

And I think America is currently cutting itself off at the feet.

2pm is lunch break for us. See you there.

Mike Smith and Revel Smith said...

My first CCGS conference on homelessness. I came away dispirited by the participating congregations' focus on charity and many (not all) of the professionals' lip service to activism. I kept hearing, "How do we make an impact? How do we work for justice?" and then these limp responses, "Well, you have to organize around a winnable issue...." That kind of suggestion gets us what we appear to have now: piecemeal, "quick, let's put the next fire out" flare-ups of re-activism.

After all these years of working on homelessness, why is there not a broad-based, focused, relentless movement comprised of all these great programs/nonprofits/etc? (I realize this lack of organization is not restricted to Seattle.) I can see why people just throw up their hands and revert to charitable activities. There's no "there there" to the advocacy scene, nothing to join and lend one's hand and heart to.

[A picky aside: the feeling/intention behind Joe Martin's words was indeed "amazing, moving, radical." As a speech, however, it amounted to little more than a lengthy string of quotes. Amazing quotes, to be sure--I feverishly scribbled down reference after reference. Moving--absolutely! Those quotes were deep, baby, seriously. Give me more where that came from. Radical--sure! those quotes got right to the root of the situation. His keynote was the only high point of the day for me, but I'd be more interested in seeing his bibliography in print than his speech because his own words were actually quite few.]

Sally K. said...

I want to compliment Donna Pierce for the phrase she used today in testifying at the Seattle City Council Parks Committee's smarmily-conducted hearing on the military housing at Ft. Lawton/Discovery Park. Donna said the Parks Committee's action was an example of "economic cleansing." The committee, to no one's surprise, recommended buying the property from the Navy and eventually demolishing the housing in favor of "open space." (Open space might be best defined as what's contained between the ears of anyone who recommends demolishing housing in this area.) I also want to assure Donna that there are more angry low-income advocates out there than you think, and we recognize that charity doesn't equal justice, even though we're still doing food programs because people simply need to eat. The workshops at yesterday's Political Will to End Homelessness conference weren't all placid and polite; I heard quite a bit of disgust and anger expressed. It's to be expected that religious communities--especially those which see themselves as pursuing a specific soul-saving ministry--at first focus on charity. But sooner or later there's an evolution of attitude and they begin to tire of rescuing babies from the river and start walking upstream to find out who the hell is tossing them into the river in the first place. What's tricky and takes up at lot of time is simultaneously rescuing AND walking upstream. After the last few years in our area, at least we know where to find the people who are tossing the babies in, and we don't have to go very far. Downtown Seattle is a good first choice. said...

Sally, thanks for your comments and for your experienced perspective on advocacy in Seattle...and I'm glad to hear there was some disgust and anger. I'm also dealing with a church community that loves to throw money and socks at the homeless and poor, but that's about the extent of the involvement as a church. Charity? Great. Justice? Huh?

One of my fellow churchies regularly trots out the phrase with great indignance, "But we need to take care of our own first!" during annual budget time when I lobby for more funds for outreach.

The smug self-congratulations going around that committee table today were really too much!

Pastor Rick said...

ARRGH. Why does it have to be either or? Can't we have charity, AND activism?

I mean, I'd love to just shut down Operation Nightwatch ( or my blog at and do nothing but take potshots at developers or organize local congregations to sit in at the mayor's office.

Meanwhile 2,000 people are sleeping outside tonight. Can we ignore them? No. And I thank God for the socks sent over here by Fauntleroy Church because at midnight when we have to send some poor slob out the door because city wants to devote money to getting 80 low-income people off the street for good instead of funding basic emergency shelter, it's nice to give some solace which might turn into hope for the next morning. Or maybe Fauntleroy church would give up some building space for 50 homeless men bussed in and out from downtown?

Tim Harris said...

Rick's right, of course. Meanness must be mitigated. But if no one takes on the bully, everyday it's another bloody nose.

This stuff I hear a lot about "inequality, what can ya do? so I'm gonna just focus on services and actually have an impact," is simultaneously defeatist, short-sighted, and, at a certain point, politically cowardly.

Charity is utterly necessary, and good works are to be commended, but far too few of us are committed in our actions to more. To say that, I think, isn't anti-charity. It's pro-justice.

Joe Martin quoted Peter Maurin in his speech saying that social workers need to be revolutionaries. Obviously, that's not for everyone. But they should at least be committed liberal reformers.

My wife often says that the issue is that lots of people simply don't know how; that activism doesn't come naturally, and that people are drawn to the work by the impulse to help. I think that's right. But I also think it's a culture that needs to be questioned and that can be changed. said...

Hi, Rick - it's not an either-or, of course. People must be cared for and walked with or we are absolute barbarians. I'm just commenting on the long line of helpers and the short line of changers. And boy do I hear you loud and clear about, "Hey, Fauntleroy Church with your big building--what about shelter space, huh?" We've just joined Family Promise of Seattle to provide shelter once a quarter for a week at a time to homeless families--and even for that lousy four weeks a year, there was a rather cranky minority to deal with, I'm aggrieved to say. But it's a start. These poor defenseless affluent!They have to be led oh so slowly or they implode! Sigh. It's both exasperating and, well, sinful, if I may be permitted to use the S word in this day and time.

Sally K. said...

Since this is the time of year (High Holy Days) when Jews think back on what they've done that is hurtful to others, it's appropriate that I apologize to Rev. Rick or any others who feel that advocates/activists do not appreciate or feel necessary the hard work that he and other providers do. Shelter and protest--pulling babies out and confronting those who are throwing them in--are both absolutely necessary (until we have a coordinated, tax-supported system of services such as every other developed country has, if that ever becomes possible in this cowboy country). The typical advocate doesn't know how to do what Rick and his colleagues do; I sure as hell don't. On the other hand, he and other providers have done double duty as providers AND advocates all these years. Yasher koach (may your power increase) to all of you!

Bill K-H said...

I wrote a near-perfect reply,..long too, just like Tim writes long,… my wireless went poof and so did comment. Rather than re-create, here’s some pieces. We gotta wake up. I still see, even in blogs and snipes at our PW& Des MOines event from this quarter or that, the living out of the old adage, “Sign on the muddy road in Tennessee, ‘Choose your rut carefully; you’ll be in it the next ten miles.’” I see little-to-no hope in ending homelessness from liberals or radical activists collectively outside of the faith community (hint: Where are you all? I/We need you front and center). Sniping at the faith community seems popular both from within it as well as from those adjacent. Did the faith community create homelessness any more than the rest of the citizens? Sure, in many ways the faith community is as naïve or clueless, but I don’t recall the non-faith community “Creating the Political Will to End Homelessness" events or any visible movement. WTO brings people to the streets, and we saw what bringing too many clueless people to the streets accomplishes. Wow! Hasn’t international trade turned 180 degrees since then (due to our riots)? Sic, of course. We dug the homelessness hole over the last 25 years and the comedy/tragedy is that in 10 years we think we can fill a hole from which we moved and sold the dirt. Key point: Sold. Money is our divine interest. Developers have become pseudo-gods. Elections measure money as the criteria for who leads polls. Bill Hobson even says, what we need to end homelessness is money. I happen to think that Will precedes money, to include deciding how we spend it. While ads dull us into spending even without intent, I still happen to believe Will guides us,.. and for people of faith, some conversation (or even prayer, i.e., listening to God) that involves the humility to know our first thought is not going to be the best place to start in most cases. Also, we need more focus in learning how compassion is the currency to changing life from ruts to new paths. Compassion = to suffer with. Compassion lifts the voices of those who suffer and brings enough order to making that voice public that it takes away the pathetic hand-wringing and furrowed brows we see around tables at meetings when the simple question is, “What shall we do?”Compassion eschews legacies, so we have to guess that Mayor Nickels, e.g. and among others, may have to trust that legacies – if realized -- come with putting others first. Can we affirm what Daniel Berrigan says,…and a quote I often use in sermons,…. “Sometime in your life, hope that you might see one starved man, the look on his face when the bread finally arrives. Hope that you might have bought it or baked it or even kneaded it yourself. For that look on his face, for your meeting his eyes across a piece of bread, you might be willing to lose a lot, or suffer a lot, or die a little, even.” Suffer? Ha! Too many still measure ending homelessness as a day job or a service project for our day of worship,… But not all. We ITFH and AHA may be back in the Mayor’s lobby soon. Last visit there for several months turned around shelter cuts in Seattle. Yesterday Tom Rasmussen, who supported those shelter cuts back then, pretty much said, “over my dead body will we cut Seattle shelter beds.” (my words) Divine intervention? Or just ordinary folks helping him see? Lest we pick on friends, let’s pick apart the urge to be compassionate-short,…. After all, we seek to be out on the limbs where the fruit grows, and not hugging the trunks worrying over institutional and organizational integrity (translated --> not scaring away donors). Getting mad ought make us act, but not make us advocate, that is speak on behalf of those who suffer, in ways that escalate the suffering. We already know how much it embarrasses thin-skinned electeds to make them look foolish in public. Their payback DOES EXIST. So let’s be smart, persistent, and unrelenting. Above all let’s listen a little better before we slam the pitchfork into the foot that steps forward just cuz we think it ain’t the BEST,… geesh we are so elitist sometimes,….

Tim Harris said...

I love it when Bill gets all stream-of-consciousness on us, and I love that this discussion is happening, and that people are feeling frustration and urgency and are groping toward new ways of doing what we do.

Mangano is fond of quoting Einstein on the futility of doing the same things repeatedly to no good effect while he leads us back to a pre-New Deal privatization of charity.

While, in his capable hands, the concept is disingenuously deployed, in the larger sense, he's right. I'm seeing the beginnings of a re-alignment of strategies and tactics in both national and local advocacy as the reality of our situation becomes more clear to all of us.

Speaking for myself, I feel huge urgency in working toward a broader sense of movement building that gets beyond the powerlessness of professionalized advocacy and the shortsightedness of service provision without activism. That said, some of my best friends are professional advocates and human service providers, and they're feeling the same frustration and urgency that's being expressed here, and are right there with us in the belly of this whale.

If structural change were easy, everyone would be doing it.

donna.pierce said...

Interesting you bring up the notion of compassion, Bill, as I've been reading and thinking about that a lot today. There are many compassionate people around, but they don't know how to advocate and organize. I'm one of them. We need training. If we had more folks who could concretely point to and lead the way, I think people would be lining up to help, I really do.

There's also an awful lot of people who are not compassionate in the least, or perhaps only for people in their immediate circles. There are countless clueless comments on blogs, newspaper articles, etc., about "I worked hard to get what I have, damn it, and I don't see why I should help anyone else. Screw 'em." For them, I've been thinking about Compassion Education! I've been amazed by how many people I've run across in my various nonprofit careers who have a very difficult time imagining themselves in someone else's shoes. Perhaps it's a learned skill...or an inborn skill that needs to be nurtured...

Tim--back to your column about the two conferences. I know you're cynical, but there were people at the conference listening to Joe Martin who were deeply disquieted (in the best possible way) by his words, as a friend of mine said, and would be front and center, ready to become activists, if there were a truly organized movement. So just because they/we clapped politely and went to lunch doesn't mean no one cared or was not moved or didn't want to do SOMETHING to change the status quo.

Tim Harris said...

That wasn't fair was it? It didn't occur to me until now that this is what Bill and Rick were getting at. The downbeat and judgmental sounding concluding paragraph. That had more to do with ending the column cleverly than what I actually think.

I know that different people are at very different places and got the sense myself of there being a lot of questioning, searching, and anger, and not a lot of complacency in evidence.

For all I know, no one had lunch. I stayed in the workshop room to get a start on this column, which was the Real Change lead op-ed and due at 5. This, I hope, helps to explain some of its imperfection. It's agitprop, not a position paper. People shouldn't read too much into that line.

donna.pierce said...

I hear you. But people don't like to be mocked. If we want folks to "join the revolution," we probably should err on the side of encouragement and giving them the benefit of the doubt, even though that doesn't give us clever, witty zingers...much as I love clever, witty zingers.

I say this to remind myself as well, as I am often disdaining of many of my fellow churchies, basically good folks that they are, for their seeming lack of concern for others. Log in my eye, mote in theirs.

Another comment back to Bill re: ending homeless is not a day job. I hear what you're saying, too, and it's true that a "Homelessness Sunday" at church will not do much toward that end. But I don't think that the efforts of those of us who can only do part-time work because of raising families or trying to put food on the table or whatever are to be discounted. Without the efforts of volunteers or stay-home parents, most nonprofits (and schools) and their missions would be dead in the water (I say this having experience on both sides of the fence--having run nonprofits and being a volunteer).

Not feeling defensive--just trying to think about different sides of the issues.